And so I return to the internet after yet another not-so-brief hiatus.
However, that’s not the issue here. The issue here is that Breaking Bad‘s frustratingly brief fifth season has already come to a close, and I’m here to discuss just what makes this episode (and the show itself) so remarkably special.
Let’s continue after the jump.
“Gliding Over All,” which takes its name from the similarly-titled Walt Whitman poem “Gliding O’er All,” is jam-packed with so much closure that it could easily serve as a series finale, were it not for Hank’s fateful trip to the bathroom in those final minutes. There were some obvious reasons why it felt like the end times were upon us in this one- mainly, that the story has started to undertake massive, fundamental changes necessary for things to finally wrap up next summer. Walt quits the meth business forever (probably). Hank finally connects his brother-in-law to the drug kingpin he’s been hunting for so long. The mere presence of these elements brings the whole world of Breaking Bad crashing down around us as we watch.
But there are plenty of little touches that make this episode feel just as final. “Gliding Over All” is peppered with little callbacks to events that Breaking Bad fans know all too well. A fly. A certain dented paper towel dispenser. The dialogue itself is stuffed full of lines made famous in previous episodes, like Lydia’s “we’re gonna make a lot of money together” mirroring Tuco from the first season finale. My personal favorite? The opening shots of the episode’s final scene, which are a near-perfect repilca of the black and white flashforward mystery of the plane crash in season two.
There’s more to these little notes than just a game for the fans, however. All throughout this hour, little cracks start to show in Walt’s ruthless kingpin exterior. He wanders off into his own thoughts while a gang of thugs engineer the deaths of Mike’s nine guys and lawyer, only snapping back to that Heisenberg snarl when a particular thug gets overly aggressive. Later on, in the second of two fantastic montages (perhaps two of the most powerful montages the show’s ever put out), we glimpse a repeated shot of Walt resting heavily in an easy chair, not looking like the king of an empire business, but rather a man who’s starting to look a little worn out. With all the references to the highlights of Walt’s exploits, I can’t help but feel that Walt himself is doing the same thing we all are- thinking back to better days, when he was still the underdog.
So while it would make sense that after all this, Walt would actually entertain the idea of leaving meth behind and becoming a family man again, what’s so surprising is that this choice actually makes him seem a little more likable. Granted, he’s still a liar and a manipulator and a murderer with some savage-looking facial hair, but for once he’s actually making the right decisions and it casts him in a more sympathetic light. The same thing applies to Walt’s final scene with Jesse. Despite the initial awkwardness and Jesse’s (and the audience’s) initial horror as to what might be in those duffel bags, there’s the tiniest sliver of underlying sweetness as Walt and Jesse reminisce about the world’s crappiest RV. Considering how inhuman Walt’s become these last few seasons, any amount of sweetness is more than we’re used to.
And this has some serious implications for what’ll be happening in the final eight episodes. When Hank inevitably starts chasing after Walt, is he going to be hunting a man who’s started to see the error of his ways? Or will this new threat cause Walt to throw his newfound sincerity out the window and revert right back to the man who whistles a happy tune shortly after dissolving a child’s body in acid? Also, as far as the last eight episodes are concerned, what exactly is Hank going to do with this information? And what happened to Lydia? And Todd? I somehow doubt that these two would gladly allow Walt to abandon his position at the head of a multi-million dollar drug ring. In fact, us folk in the audience don’t ever see any real evidence of Walt giving it all up. Like Skylar, we’re forced to accept the word of a man who’s done nothing but lie at every available opportunity.
Now, I obviously can’t write a review of this finale without bringing up the end of “Gliding Over All,” so let’s move on to those last few seconds of the episode.
And holy crap were those seconds wonderful. It still doesn’t quite seem real, even though it’s already been several weeks since the episode first aired. Obviously, this had to happen. Hank had to find out the truth so that the story could actually come to a satisfying end. But the suddenness of it (combined with the fact that’ll be nearly a year until we find out what happens next) has kept my brain from actually acknowledging that yes, Hank knows that Walt is involved with the blue stuff.
There are just so many factors that make this reveal as great as it is. That perfect look of stunned, dawning comprehension on Dean Norris’s face. The sudden, eerie change to a deep blue color temperature when Hank flashes back to his conversation with Walt (plus that creepy, guttural chuckling sound Walt makes before saying “you got me”). The buildup of freakish, overwhelming suspense when Hank gets up to go to the bathroom. Obviously, we’re in the last few minutes of a season finale. Something awful has to happen. Something so awful that it’ll create a future Walt with a full beard and a fake ID and a machine gun in the trunk of a car. So when things just stay as benign as ever up until the last few seconds, I’m squirming in my seat because I know that hammer’s getting closer and closer to dropping for good. This is true of nearly the entire last half of the episode- as things get progressively sunnier for Walt and co., I became increasingly anxious over what terrible event would kill this positive mood. The idea to put that flashforward in the season’s first episode was an absolute stroke of genius- it warps the end of “Gliding Over All” into something that’s both warm and comforting yet also sickeningly tense. It’s an incredible way to end a season of television, and it also guarantees that I’ll be awaiting these last eight episodes with an obsession that borders on unhealthy.
But before I go, there’s one last point I’d like to make.
When I think about Breaking Bad, I often find myself judging it in comparison to the other great shows in recent TV history- The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and the like. But the area in which Breaking Bad seems to differ from so many other shows is that it excels in every single aspect of the filmmaking process. Obviously, it’s well written. Well acted. But there are scores of shows out there with exceptional writers and exceptional actors. The incredible heights reached by the writers and actors of Breaking Bad are also being reached by its editors, cinematographers, sound designers, composers and everyone else contributing to the show. As much as I love television, it’s a rarity that I’ll turn on my TV and see something that’s of the same artistic quality that you could find in an arthouse theater. I love The Wire and The Shield and so many other shows, but rarely do I ever find myself daydreaming about the lighting or the editing of those particular programs. Solely in “Gliding Over All,” I could tell you about the perfect timing of the cut between Walt leaning forward to grab his drink in Hank’s house and rising back up in the middle of a meth cook. Or the gorgeous time-lapse photography in the establishing shot of the motel where the prison murders are planned. Solely from an artistic and a filmmaking perspective, there’s really nothing else out there on TV that’s quite on the level of Breaking Bad.
Ok, I’ve finished my rant. I hope everyone out there enjoyed my return to the world of TV, and with us firmly in the middle of pilot season, I’ll have plenty of fodder to pick apart (and hopefully enjoy at the same time). Personally, I’m thinking that Vegas on CBS and Last Resort on ABC will probably be the cream of the crop this year. But that’s just my guess.
Anyway, here are some extra notes to end on:
- As far as I can tell, here are all the references to past episodes: Walt sees a fly (“Fly”), Walt sees the boat painting in the motel (the same one seen in season two’s “Bit By a Dead Bee”), Walt getting another MRI (“Pilot”), the dented paper towel dispenser (from where Walt punched it in “4 Days Out”), the opening shots of the dinner party mirroring the ones from season two’s flashforwards, Lydia’s aforementioned dialogue, and Walt’s line of “learn to take yes for an answer” (first spoken by Mike in season four’s “Thirty-Eight Snub”).
- Also, speaking of that MRI, could that be a clue that Walt’s cancer has returned? He did pop a pill or two back in the flashforward in 5.1. All I can really do on this one is wait for a little more information in next year’s episodes.
- Plenty of foreshadowing in this one- an early shot of the Walt Whitman book on the toilet, and Walt sarcastically mocking Lydia with the idea that he’d just brazenly murder her in the middle of a crowded diner. Spooky.
- My brain instinctively grumbles “Aw, fer chrissakes Marie” every time I see something purple in the Schrader residence.
- For a while now, Breaking Bad has shied away from actually showing us the dissolving of bodies in acid, and it’s so much more effective (and horrifying) when somebody rolls out that barrel and then everything else is left to the imagination.
- Not only was the prison-murder montage perfectly contrasted against Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up,” but that was easily some of the most stomach-churning violence I’ve seen on this show in a long while.
Well, that about does it, folks. I’ll see you all next time.